What is biodiversity was never a question 25 years ago for the term was yet to be invented. Then in the early 1990’s it became popular among scientists, as the shortened form of biological diversity.
Even politicians briefly adopted the term only for it to fall away in favor of the [temporarily] more pressing issues of global warming and climate change.
First though we should to answer the question — biodiversity is the variety of life on earth.
This is the easiest definition made popular as the title of a pivotal book on the subject by Professor Ed Wilson.
This definition hides much of the true complexity in the term for biodiversity is also the inventory, the sum and the interactions of all nature’s living parts.
It can include:
In short biodiversity covers many of the important things that keep us alive.
It is far more than the sum of the different parts.
invertebrates and microbes make up the bulk of biodiversity
Soon after the scientists became comfortable with biodiversity as an umbrella term for understanding of how nature is put together it was commandeered by environmentalism, especially the conservation movement.
This was both good and bad.
Good because the topic gained exposure. There was media attention and a rise in public awareness particularly due to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that came about at the 1992 global earth summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Briefly biodiversity loss was a key global environmental issue and became a surrogate for conservation and a rallying cry for environmentalism.
Unfortunately this confused several separate and equally important environmental issues.
The variety of life is not a direct surrogate for the conservation of species because they are not interchangeable. If we work to conserve the black rhinoceros [not an easy task] it does not mean that we automatically conserve biodiversity.
Equally traditional biological conservation that is more often than not about the rare and endangered creatures with fur or feathers [and occasionally the habitats that support them] does not cover some of the most important biodiversity for production in plants and in the soil.
Biodiversity is as important for our production systems as it is as part of biological conservation.
Rather than seeing biological diversity as critical to maintaining the productivity of both natural and agricultural production systems it became a bandwagon for the rare and endangered.
This was a shame.
Okavango delta, Botswana
All bandwagons have something in common — they don’t last.
In the 1990’s biodiversity entered the lexicon. Books were written, college students attended biodiversity classes and jurisdictions even created legislation on the theme. Politicians were given biodiversity sound bites and for a moment the sixth great mass extinction was given credence.
Aside from a few stalwarts still holding a candle, biodiversity seems to be forgotten.
A quick check on Google Trends shows the popularity of biodiversity in internet searches from 2004 to present relative to the peak search volume [that happened to be in October 2004].
Currently we are searching for the term at around 50% of the 2004 peak — except at christmas each year when we forget about it altogether.
This represents a huge fall off in interest given the number of searches has increased exponentially since 2004 — or it means we are all fully across the concept and have no need for further details.
invertebrates like this millipede from southern Africa make up over half the biodiversity in most habitats
We might have lost an opportunity by making biodiversity into a bandwagon.
The organisms that make up nature also form it, drive it and balance it. They make up the natural capital that is so critical to our modern economic systems.
All we know about how plants and animals fix carbon, cycle nutrients, and maintain primary production is that organisms make it all happen… and the more variety there is in those organisms, the more reliable that production will be in the face of environmental change.
It is diversity that helps maintain natural capital.
Remarkably we readily forget this truth.
So if we ask the ‘what is biodiversity’ question again a good answer would be…
…the foundation of our wellbeing.
marble bust of Charles Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London
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